Updated: June 3, 2016 9:27:37 pm
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew down to the coastal Odisha town of Balasore on Thursday to address the Vikash Gaurav rally celebrating two years of his government, he was setting a record of sorts. In the last two years since he became PM, Modi has visited Odisha four times, the last three visits have come in less than five months.
In April last year, he came to steel city Rourkela to inaugurate an expanded steel plant of SAIL. In February this year, he flew down to port town of Paradip to inaugurate Indian Oil Corporation’s 15 million tonne per annum oil refinery and then address a farmers’ rally in the western Odisha town of Bargarh, a fortnight later. In a state where the BJP has just about 20 per cent of the votes and still a long way to go to before it can take a real shot to power, many are seeing Modi’s back-to-back visit as a quixotic approach of tilting at windmills.
But it may not be so. While the BJP still lags behind BJD with just 10 MLAs in the 147-member Odisha Assembly and no popular face to match the popularity of a four-time chief minister like Naveen Patnaik, the party is sensing a window of opportunity in anti-incumbency.
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After 19 years in power, the odds are that BJD would face anti-incumbency. Besides, the demographics of Odisha weigh more in favour of the youth and BJP leaders are hoping the new crop of voters in 2019 may just support them as BJD has failed to provide them employment.
Having ruled Odisha on the trot for the last 16 years, the Naveen Patnaik-led BJD may have offered a stable government, food security and a relatively calm law and order situation, but little in terms of employment. A 2014 Labour Bureau Report revealed that for over 2.6 lakh graduates aspiring for jobs in the state, Odisha almost topped the country with a high of around 15 per cent unemployment rate among graduates in 2014. Unemployment among Odisha graduates and postgraduates was abnormally higher at 14.8 per cent and 8.2 per cent, respectively. Such high unemployment rates among graduates can be seen only in Bihar and the north-eastern states.
At the Balasore meeting on Thursday, Modi spoke about Odisha youth migrating to western India in search of jobs leaving their old parents. Though he has refrained from attacking Naveen and BJD – his party’s best possible non-NDA ally in the Rajya Sabha – Modi and the BJP believe that rising unemployment as a theme would find resonance among the voters.
BJP leaders have also pinned their hopes on a lack of succession plans in the BJD in case Naveen is indisposed due to his advancing age. As Naveen has not nurtured a second line leadership, BJP is hopeful that BJD may not survive a post-Naveen era.
With such a tantalising possibility, Modi’s ministerial colleagues too have marked Odisha in their calendar as a favourite destination. While more than a dozen union ministers including railway minister Suresh Prabhu, health minister JP Nadda, road transport minister Nitin Gadkari have visited the state at least 40 times in last two years, in the next three weeks at least seven union ministers will visit several cities of Odisha to hammer home the achievements of Modi government.
Union Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar will visit Cuttack while Gadkari would address a meeting in Bhubaneswar. Minorities minister Nahma Heptullah will visit Sambalpur while mines minister Narendra Singh Tomar will visit Rourkela.
But above everyone else, Union Minister for Petroleum and Natural gas, Dharmendra Pradhan, is setting a scorching pace as he visits Odisha almost every weekend to meet party cadres or attend a function. Pradhan, who has been often hailed by the PM for the good performance of his ministry, is increasingly being seen as BJP’s man in Odisha.
The party’s Odisha agenda is not just limited to frequent visits, the BJP is ensuring that Odisha gets preferential treatment when it comes to central funds. In the 2016-17 Railway Budget, the railway ministry made the highest ever budgetary allocation of Rs 4,682 crore to Odisha while sanctioning long-pending railway line projects to KBK districts. In February this year, Modi inaugurated the Rs 35,000 crore 15 MMTPA oil refinery of Indian Oil Corporation at Paradip terming it “gateway to the east”, while the union cabinet last month approved setting up a National Investment Manufacturing Zone in Jajpur’s Kalinga Nagar industrial area at a coast of Rs 4,241 crore. In January too, the Centre approved Rs 815 crore, the biggest-ever package for drought.
“The Prime Minister’s visit to Odisha is in tune with his Look East policy,” said BJP national secretary Suresh Pujari.
“Odisha is firmly on his radar.”
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